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JJ DiGeronimo: Be Picky About Projects, Push Employees To Build Their Skill Sets

Executives looking to retain their employees must nurture their self-confidence and turn down morale-killing projects, JJ DiGeronimo, president of Tech Savvy Women, tells XChange 2019 attendees.

Executives looking to retain their staff and diversify their leadership ranks must nurture employees’ self-confidence and turn down morale-killing projects, according to JJ DiGeronimo, president of Tech Savvy Women.

Many workers engage in negative self-talk, DiGeronimo said, forcing them to doubt their own ability to take on a new project, a new customer or a new product line. DiGeronimo has attempted to help employees combat their feelings of doubt.

"Many of the ways we show up as a leader is based on how we talk about ourselves," DiGeronimo said Monday during XChange 2019 in Denver.

[Related: Aron Ralston: The Three Gifts Adversity Gives Us]

Leaders that beat themselves up about not being 100 percent perfect or not getting a project over the finish line tend end up frustrated with their own teams, DiGeronimo said. If managers want to expand as a leader, DiGeronimo said they need to critically examine their own crutches and the negative thoughts they're holding on to.

Also key to expanding as a leader is to disconnect from devices and other distractions getting in the way of quality time with people you love when you come home for the day, according to DiGeronimo.

"Give yourself permission to take a break from the list, the phone, and even the conversation in your head," DiGeronimo said.

Self-esteem is how a person feels, while confidence is the actions a person takes based on how he or she feels, DiGeronimo said. Supervisors can build up employees by providing stretch opportunities to those who aren't 100 percent ready but have the capacity to pull off the task, DiGeronimo said.

This can take the form of telling direct reports things like “Next year, we'd like you to take on this type of role” and then coaching the employee along the way, according to DiGeronimo. These stretch opportunities also need to include a safety net, DiGeronimo said.

Most of the people who end up staying in the tech industry believe they can do it and have a vision for where they're going. As a result, keeping people in the industry is typically more about confidence than competence, DiGeronimo said.

Supervisors need to be more of a leader than a boss, according to Seth Byrnes, vCIO at Portland, Ore.-based solution provider Convergence Networks. Some talented technologists bring a lot of ego to the able, and Byrnes said leaders must therefore work hard to instill a culture around communal goals and mutual respect.

Byrnes plans to take his junior technicians at Convergence Networks out to lunch on a more regular basis to learn about their interests outside the office and get to know them better. He said he hopes more regular dialogue will inspire them to be better technicians and move ahead in their career.

DiGeronimo, meanwhile, urged leaders to sit with any incoming request for 24 hours, especially when the request would take more than five hours of the leader's time. Too many tech companies say “yes” to all incoming requests and assume they'll figure out how to make it work later, DiGeronimo said, but that approach ends up burning out executives and their teams.

Effective leaders protect their schedule to align with their priorities and avoid getting caught up in things that don't align with the organization's mission or revenue stream, DiGeronimo said. Companies must find strategic ways to align with specific projects that support the main goal of the business, she said.

Organizations must be strategic with where they're spending time, define their areas of focus, and align talent accordingly, DiGeronimo said. Supervisor conflicts and being asked to take on too much at once are the most common reasons for an employee to depart a company, according to DiGeronimo.

"Don't take on projects you're disgusted or annoyed by right from the get-go," DiGeronimo said. "Pass that on. Let somebody else have it."

Leaders should assess the alignment of a new project with the organization's goals, the benefit to the customers, the impact on the company from a revenue, operational efficiency or brand perspective, as well as the level of executive visibility it provides, according to DiGeronimo. Buy-in from senior management is vital for getting momentum behind a new piece of work, DiGeronimo said.

Instead of having direct reports do the same project over and over again without advancing skills, good supervisors make sure their subordinates are building additional skill sets based on where they want to have impact next.

In addition, employee retention will suffer if staff members don't know why they're working on a particular project, she added. As the work is beginning, DiGeronimo recommended that supervisors speak with assigned employees about the customer, why the project matters, how it impacts the company's bottom line, and how it will help the organization going forward.

"You really should be a little more picky," DiGeronimo said, "not only for you and your organization, but also for your employees too."

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